The common Good: Howard Thurman


as preached on December 3, 2023 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston

There are moments in our lives that profoundly shift who we are. I suspect you know what I am talking about. There was that time a friend invited you to a party, and standing in line for the punch bowl, you met your life partner. Or the afternoon when, at the back of a garage sale, you found a dusty old, but still serviceable, guitar. Your uncle taught you a few chords and you joined a band and … Or back in high school, when you could not get into the class you wanted–you were aiming for something easy–you wound up in physics and unexpectedly found your career. Or … Well, you know your life, you know the unanticipated twists and turning points where one possibility opened and another closed.

Scholars like to refer to this dynamic as contingency. Naturalist Stephen Jay Gould names it as “the central principle of all history.” Over and against theorists who would reduce life to the laws of nature or economic and sociological phenomenon–the old historical materialism of my Marxist friends–Gould and others like him suggest individual events, actions, or decisions matter.

If an asteroid, or was it a comet, had not smacked into the Earth some sixty-six million years ago dinosaurs might still rule the planet. No space rock, no Age of Mammals. No Age of Mammals, no primates. No primates, no human evolution. No human evolution, no you, no me, no First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, contingency.

The same holds true for the tattered tapestry we call human history. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette might have escaped their bloody fates if Jean-Baptiste Drouet had not recognized them by chance as they fled Paris by carriage. No end of the French monarchy, no French Republic. No French Republic, no Napoleon. And suddenly, if Drouet had turned his eyes the other way, the entire history of Europe is different, the history of the world is different. And so it goes.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (Were you there?)
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Here I arrive at the entwined events that structure this morning’s sermon: the life that was Jesus and the theologian Howard Thurman’s interpretation of that life.

Thurman’s name is likely familiar to many of you. He is the subject of today’s service in our continuing series “Lives of the Spirit.” In a sense, he has been with us throughout. His famous 1953 sermon series “The Way of the Mystics” inspired our own modest efforts. His scholarship has helped us to define a mystic as someone who finds something within their own “experience that opens up into the infinite.”

Mystics locate within the contingent events of their own lives–the unexpected conversation at the punch bowl, the shine of the battered guitar, the mystery of the mathematical equation–a flash of the universal; the infinite within the particular.

Within the particular lives of our exemplars–last month we had Rev. Scott’s beautiful sermon on Dorothy Day–we have the opportunity to delve into the crucial questions that animate our sermon series: What does it mean to lead a good life? What are the resources that will allow me to lead such a life? How shall I know I am leading one?

Were you there when the sun refused to shine? (Were you there?)
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, Thurman was a Black Baptist minister. He was all of thirty-five years old when he, and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman, found themselves in conversation with Mahatma Gandhi. They had gone to India on a “Pilgrimage of Friendship” that intended to connect the African American struggle with the independence movement to push British out of the subcontinent. Both, they understood, were part of an interconnected effort to free the world from colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy.

Gandhi and his guests narrowed in on two topics. The first, the sorrowful state of Christianity in the world. The second, the potential of nonviolence to end empire.

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, Gandhi told the Thurmans that the “greatest … [barrier] to Jesus Christ in India” was “Christianity as it is practiced.” The Thurmans agreed. Though he did not share the story with Gandhi, in his agreement Howard likely recalled what he had learned about Christianity from his grandmother.

Nancy Ambrose was born into slavery. She lived at one of those forced labor camps we euphemistically call plantations until the Civil War. As a child, since she “could neither read nor write,” Howard was tasked with reading the Bible to her. Together they would cover, as he recalled, “many of the more devotional Psalms, some of Isaiah, the Gospels again and again.” But never Paul. He was verboten, as my own German speaking grandmother would have said. But Nancy Ambrose did not explain why.

Thurman went away to college. He read all of the Bible for himself. He came back to visit Daytona, Florida, where he had grown up and where his grandmother lived, and finally asked about her distain for Paul. Here is how Thurman recalled her reply:

“During the days of slavery,” she aid, “the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. … Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used … : ‘Slaves, be obedient to … your masters … , as unto Christ.’ Then he would … show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that … if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”

Thurman thought about his grandmother’s story for years. It seemed key to understanding why, as he put it, “the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful against the oppressed.” He considered Jesus. He reflected on Paul. He searched for the differences between “the Master” and “the first great creative interpreter of Christianity.” Both men, he knew, were Jewish by “blood, training, background, and religion.” But there was a “desert and a sea” between them.

A desert and a sea between them, the difference came down to this: Paul was a Roman citizen. Jesus was not. Paul had all of the privileges that came with citizenship. “If a Roman soldier … was taking advantage of him, he could make an appeal directly to Caesar,” Thurman reflected. His life was under the protection of the state.

Jesus was entitled to none of that. Born in occupied Palestine, to poor parents, a member of the working classes–Paul was part of the educated elite–Jesus was at the mercy of the powerful. As Thurman put it, “If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in the ditch.”

The distance from Jesus to Paul was the same as the distance from the bottom to the top of the ditch. The first was haunted by “insecurity.” He was, in Thurman’s words, part of the “masses … [who] live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?” Thurman wanted to know.

The religion of Jesus, Paul’s Christianity, the distance from one to the other, he decided, could be measured from the bottom to the top of the ditch. The religion of Jesus: the religion of “the disinherited and the underprivileged.” Christianity, Thurman recounted he was told while he was in India, “gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery.” It justified “a Christian nation in which [Black people] … are segregated, lynched, and burned.”

The task, Thurman realized, was to put aside Christianity and to recover the religion of Jesus. This he summarized as: “You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea–Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”

Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, these are not easy teachings. I would be speaking untruths if I claimed that I followed them. Thurman struggled with them. Living during segregation, the humiliation of Jim Crow could fill him with rage.

And yet, and yet…

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

The second topic Gandhi and Thurman covered was nonviolence. The two men recognized that while they came from different religious traditions–Gandhi was a Hindu–they were both animated by what Thurman named “ethical and moral devotion.” So, they sat together. Gandhi offered a prayer. Howard and his wife responded by singing “Were You There” and “Jacob’s Ladder.” And the Indian philosopher outlined his conception of nonviolence.

The word was one he had coined, though he did not much like the term. “It is no negative force,” he told Thurman. It was, instead, the power of life itself. It was, leaning into his visitors’ religion, “the Kingdom of Heaven.” It was found by “living the creed in your life which must be a living sermon.”

Your life must be a living sermon, the religion of Jesus, Gandhi and Thurman believed that there can be no distinction between our ethics and our actions. We are what we do. For Paul, religion was a matter of belief. For Thurman, Gandhi, and Jesus, it was a matter of action. I sometimes summarize this position as the resurrection of the living.

The resurrection of the living, the phrase comes the gnostic Christian text “The Treatise on the Resurrection.” There we find this answer to the query, “What is the resurrection?” “It is truth standing firm. It is revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into freshness.”

A transition into freshness, the resurrection of the living is that wisdom, found in so many of the world’s religions, that tells us that the purpose of life is to fully engage with the moment we are in and the people immediately in front of us. Perhaps it is best summarized in the Buddha’s answer to the question, “Are you a god?” with the words, “I am awake.”

I am awake, your life must be a living sermon, the distance between the bottom and the top of the ditch, Thurman took in all of this, and he had a realization. He recognized that the key to nonviolence and the key to authentic religious practice was the recognition of the full humanity of each and every person.

The full humanity of each and every person, we Unitarian Universalists name this “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Thurman used theistic language. Part of our practice in “Lives of the Spirit” is to get a little uncomfortable and try to get a glimmer of the world from the perspective of some of the great spiritual activists of the twentieth century. This means sitting with spiritual practices that might not always be easy or which might rest upon theological concepts, or use theological language, that challenges our sensibilities. I want to invite you into one drawn from the traditions of African American preaching that inspired Thurman. It drives to the core of his teaching about both nonviolence and religion. It touches on the mysticism found through glimpsing the infinite in the particular.

So, here, I want to pause our sermon for just a moment and ask you to turn to your neighbor and say a few words… Here is what I invite you to say, “You are a child of God. God loves you. There is no one greater than you but God.”

“You are a child of God. God loves you. There is no one greater than you but God.”

If the language is too uncomfortable, we can recast it in humanist terms and say, “you have inherent worth and dignity. No one has more inherent worth than you.”

I am a child of God. God love me. There is no one greater than me but God. I have inherent worth and dignity. No one has more inherent worth than me.

I invite you to sit with those words for a minute. Really sit with them. Sit with them, especially, if someone or the world, has been unkind to you this week. Sit with them if you have ever been told you are less than or unworthy. You are a child of God. God loves you. There is no one greater than you but God. You have inherent worth and dignity. No one has more inherent worth than you.

Their significance for Thurman is expressed in this morning’s second reading. He tells us, “We may not be able to stop and undo the hard old wrongs of the great world outside. But through you and me no evil shall come … Thus between us we shall cancel out all private and personal evils.” When we recognize that each person is equally a child of God, or has the same inherent worth and dignity, take your pick, we arrive, Thurman and Gandhi believed, at nonviolence. The human life of each and all must honored and respected. The “blind action and reaction” of violence, which comes when the perpetrator fails to see the full humanity of the victim, leads but to more violence.

We see this now as Israel resumes its assault on Gaza–the horrors of the bombing being organized, as they are, by men such as the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant who have called Gazans “human animals” rather than saying to them, “You are a child of God. God loves you. There is no one greater than you but God.”

We see it also in the life of the great moral monster who died this week. He reduced human beings to numbers and justified atrocities with the depraved calculus of power. No inherent worth and dignity in the actions and teachings of Henry Kissinger, only blind action and reaction. War crimes by one party–Hamas–, will not be prevented by, do not justify war crimes on the part of another.

The opposite of this is the ancient Jewish teaching that each person is a universe unto themselves. As the Talmud states, “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he or she has saved an entire universe.”

Gandhi inspired Thurman to accept teachings like this as the core of nonviolence. Thurman recast them as his interpretation of the religion of Jesus–a poor, working class, man living under occupation, without access to the rights of citizenship, one of the disinherited and dispossessed. This he attempted to capture in his 1948 book Jesus and the Disinherited.

I will say slightly more about that book and Thurman’s life momentarily. But let me tell you how the conversation between Gandhi and Thurman ended. After praying together, after sharing song, after discussing nonviolence, Gandhi said to Thurman, “Well … it may be through [African Americans] … that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, Thurman was not just any theologian or any preacher. He was the mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr. His friendship with King’s father started when the two men were students at Morehouse and lasted his whole life. Thurman told King about his time in India and his experiences with Gandhi. King read Jesus and the Disinherited and said that it “established … a true ground of personal dignity.” He carried it with him almost every where he went. It brought him courage and shaped his philosophy of nonviolence.

Were you there when the sun refused to shine? (Were you there?)
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, if Howard Thurman had not gone to India he would not have met Gandhi. If he had not met Gandhi, he might not have come to his understanding of nonviolence. If he had not grasped nonviolence and its connection to the religious of Jesus, he might not have written “Jesus and the Disinherited.”

Without their meeting perhaps the history of the civil rights movement would be different. Perhaps we would have a different country, a different world, contingency.

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, the infinite in the particular, a few final, anti-climactic, biographical words about Thurman. He was born in 1899 in Daytona, Florida to a family only one generation out of slavery. He grew up in the segregated South and routinely witnessed and experienced the awful violence of white supremacy. He was the first member of his family to attend college, he went to Morehouse, and his gifts were recognized early. After college he was one of the first Black students at Rochester Theological Seminary–Martin King also went there. After graduation he briefly served as a parish minister in Oberlin, Ohio before being called back to his alma mater as a professor of philosophy and religion. From there he went to Howard University, where he was the first dean of Rankin Chapel.

He left Howard in 1944 to help organize the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples. This was one of the first intentionally interracial churches in the United States. At the time there were perhaps only 8,000 African Americans in the entire country who worshipped in congregations with White people. Sunday morning, paraphrasing King’s famous words, was the most segregated hour of the week.

There is much to be learned from his efforts in San Francisco. We may return to them in a later sermon. As a preacher, I will only note that I have learned a great deal about how to offer worship from the sermons he crafted at the time. Our “Lives of the Spirit” draws inspiration from the last series of services he led while in San Francisco, “The Way of the Mystics.” For he left the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples in 1953, to become dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, making him the first Black dean of the chapel of a historically White university. King was a doctoral student at the university at the time.

He retired in 1965 and continued to write and mentor religious leaders and activists until his death in 1981.

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, the infinite in the particular, the last words that Thurman offered to his congregation in San Francisco came from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” When Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, the Roman pagan poet of Virgil left him at the Gates of Heaven, he turned and said, “This is as far as we can go–as far as I can go. From now on you are on your own.”

This is as far as we can go, from now on you are on your own, the intention of our sermon series is to point the way. The teachings of the spiritual masters are their own. You find in them in what you will. Perhaps they will help you wake up to the beauty of the world. Perhaps they will not. But really, at the end of every sermon, what I should say to you is Thurman’s closing words to his own congregation, “This is as far as we can go–as far as I can go. From now on you are on your own.”

But let’s not leave things there. Instead, let’s leave them with words from the spiritual that Gandhi thought captured the hope of the struggle for justice.

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

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